Post-JNU, We Need a Fresh Debate on Higher Education

Because it funds public institutions, the government thinks its decision to intervene in academic and administrative matters is justified irrespective of lack of due process and the consequences.

An aerial view of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Credit: seaview99/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

An aerial view of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Credit: seaview99/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The JNU controversy has offered an opportunity to initiate a much-needed fresh conversation on higher education. This conversation is made all the more necessary because the country’s colleges and universities are in bad shape, with most of them quite broken. Unfortunately, however, perhaps or at least in part because key government officials have not shown themselves willing to acknowledge that there are problem areas which need immediate attention and radical reforms, we seem to be arguing and fighting about nearly everything else except higher education. In recent weeks, larger issues of nationalism, sedition, free speech, caste and others have taken centre-stage. In between, JNU has been made out to be a national nuisance of the highest order and even seemingly-sensible people like Chandan Mitra have come up with flighty suggestions such as shutting down the university, even if temporarily.

In all fairness, a few commentators have focused exclusively on higher education in addressing the JNU controversy, notably on issues such as the autonomy of universities and higher education subsidies. One hoped that, once the loud noises over the anti-nationalism of select groups of JNU students and faculty subsided over time, the government and its critics would both make common cause in engaging on higher education with the seriousness it deserves. However, given the government’s posturing and its overall record over the last one and a half years, including higher education, such optimism was perhaps unwarranted. With the police occupation of HCU, it is clear that we are headed for what seems to be a long drawn phase of greater confrontation and less dialogue between the government and its opponents.

What is there to debate?

Foremost among the many issues crying out loud for attention is the poor quality of education on offer at a majority of colleges and universities across the country, both public and private.

For the moment, let us ignore world university rankings and other international comparisons on which most Indian institutions fare quite poorly. The most frightening aspect of the quality problem shows up in employability numbers of college graduates across disciplines. It is estimated that over 75% of college graduates are unemployable. The numbers are dismal for popular areas such as engineering as well. According to a recent report, over 80 per cent of engineering graduates are unemployable.

With India set to become home to the largest student population in the world by 2025, if the employability numbers do not improve fast enough, the country will have to deal with hundreds of thousands of degreed-but-unemployed young women and men who will do more than just shout anti-national slogans. High levels of unemployment or underemployment among the young population – increasing numbers of whom will be packing worthless degrees since the gross enrolment ratio (GER) is rising at a steady clip – is more likely to lead to social protests of the kind we witnessed during the course of the recent Jat agitation in Haryana.

The other inevitable outcome of poor quality education is both a skills gap and skills shortage that threatens to become worse over time, especially in the more skill-intensive sectors of the economy. According to a government report, approximately 119 million additional skilled workers will be required in sectors such as construction, retail, transportation logistics, automobile, and handloom by 2022. If the mismatch between the demand and supply of skills continues to grow, the employment opportunities for the young population will remain limited, generating growing frustration and perhaps to intensification of social protests and conflict with the state. This could seriously hurt India’s growth story, reversing current narratives such as India’s star shines bright”.

Government officials should seriously worry about the demographic liability that India’s young population may become and the consequences that would follow.

The current government’s emphasis on skilling India is no doubt a wonderful initiative but making it sufficiently successful will be a challenge for the country’s “flailing state” – a term used by Lant Pritchett to describe a state that is lacking in sufficient administrative capacity to deliver on policies – which has a poor-to-moderate record at effective implementation of policies.

It is also important to consider that it is unwise to divorce the task of skilling India from educating India. As Aashish Mehta points out, while education “is not synonymous with skills,” good quality education delivers “foundational skills” without which it may be difficult for individuals to acquire suitable vocational and professional skills.

Why is all this relevant to any discussion on or about JNU?

Whatever its failings, and there are quite a few, JNU is one of the few success stories in India’s higher education. The JNU controversy is therefore an opportunity to acknowledge that, whether or not free speech, anti-nationalism and sedition are as important as are made out by the government and its supporters, JNU provides affordable and good-quality education, something that most higher education institutions in the country fail to do. Also, and this is rather important in the Indian context, JNU is an incredibly diverse institution whose students and faculty have made substantial and lasting contributions to the nation. At the very least, its graduates are less likely to add to the numbers of the unemployable.

The starting point of the conversation on higher education, therefore, could perhaps be about how to build more JNU-like institutions and how to make JNU and other colleges and universities better. A discussion on the latter is extremely important too; JNU suffers from small and big weaknesses that must not be ignored or downplayed. Whatever its strengths, it is not among the world’s leading institutions. These are conversations that need to take place but perhaps never will, because we are keen to settle other more pressing matters first.

The autonomy question

One of the more contentious issues in the JNU controversy, and one that has been sidelined rather quickly, pertains to institutional autonomy.

According to reports, vice-chancellor M. Jagadesh Kumar set up a High-Level Enquiry Committee (HLEC) the next day after the incident of February 9 when “anti-national” slogans were raised during an event on the campus. However, the HLEC was quickly sidelined by the government’s decision to send in the troops to the JNU campus to arrest student leaders. Rather than coordinate its actions with those of the JNU administration, and perhaps wait for the HLEC to investigate the matter, the government chose to undermine the status of the office of the vice-chancellor arguably on (as it turned out) flimsy grounds. At least one right-wing commentator expressed hope that “the government would be more magnanimous, allowing the university to enquire and take any disciplinary action, rather than wading in and arresting students, thereby escalating this conflict.” Since then, the HLEC has submitted its report, which draws attention to the presence of outsiders, with their heads and faces covered, shouting anti-India slogans.

Even if we were to agree that the government was correct in arresting student leaders, the fact remains that the autonomy of India’s universities is routinely punctured both from above and increasingly from below for all sorts of reasons. In the case of JNU, it was over matters of sedition and national security; more commonly, it is about lesser issues such as the appointment of vice-chancellors and directors, or even over courses that should or should not be taught and course content. Indeed, the notion of institutional autonomy appears to frighten government officials. This is quite evident in the delays and negotiations over the IIM bill.

There are also many instances where the government pleads autonomy even when there is a strong case for intervention. For example, government officials kept nearly silent for several months over the serious and proved charges of plagiarism and academic fraud against the vice-chancellor of Pondicherry University. Action was taken against her only after considerable and sustained pressure by students and faculty of the university.  

The issue of autonomy of academic institutions is a matter that has been settled. The BJP’s actions at JNU suggest that the government is determined to undermine autonomy and control the idea of learning itself.” The government calls the shots because it can, on the basis of the warped logic that because it funds public institutions, its decision to intervene, or not to, in academic and administrative matters are justified irrespective of lack of due process, existing rules and norms and of course, the consequences.

The issue of subsidies

Other than the issue of institutional autonomy, which crops up intermittently in discussions on higher education, the JNU controversy led T.V. Mohandas Pai to raise an issue which rarely comes up for discussion – higher education subsidies. Writing on the JNU controversy, he proposed:

As for JNU, it is time the government asked students to pay the full cost of education; in case students wish to focus on politics and not on their studies, there is no case for taxpayers to subsidise extreme views or an archaic Left.

Mr. Pai’s suggestion that higher education subsidies should be eliminated for institutions whose members subscribe to extreme views or pursue archaic Left politics is clearly biased; however, the issue of subsidies deserves attention.

It has been reported that the MHRD will soon take a decision on the recommendation of the Standing Committee of IIT Council (SCIC) to bring about a three-fold increase in the fees for IITs. A similar increase has already been recommended for the NITs. These hikes are based on the 2011 Anil Kakodkar Committee report, Taking IITs to Excellence and Greater Relevance, which had proposed that “the fee charged by the IITs should cover the full operational cost of education, which works out to be roughly 30% of the total current cost of education.”

It is time that a discussion on higher education subsidies for regular colleges and universities – including JNU and other central universities as well as state universities – also takes place, especially if the problem of poor quality education is to be addressed. Public institutions are cash-starved and they desperately need students and parents to contribute more. It is absurd that students and parents should be spending significantly large sums on private tuitions and on coaching institutes of all kinds than on college tuition. They need to contribute more to colleges and universities because they need the extra resources to improve the quality of education. Among other things, many desperately need more teachers but cannot hire because of resource constraints and make do with part-time faculty.

The issue is not one of maintaining the current level of subsidies or eliminating them entirely but of rationalising them, and not, as Mr. Pai would have it, on the basis of the views held by select students and faculty at particular institutions.

What happens next?

There are no signs that the government intends to back down from its agenda of tightly controlling the higher education sector. Some of the country’s best universities such as JNU and HCU have become sites for the government to more than just flex its muscles to show who is in charge. In the early stages of the JNU controversy, there was a slim possibility that it would scale down its overreaction. That hope has disappeared, almost.

With elections coming up over the next year or so in several states, electoral reversals for the BJP offer the only hope that the government will let public institutions breathe easy. Most political parties respond to electoral losses by changing course and softening their position on conflictual issues. However, others are known to harden their position under the same conditions. In the case of the BJP, losses in Delhi and Bihar typified the latter response. It is impossible to predict if it will act otherwise and moderate its position if it suffers significant losses in the coming state elections.

Pushkar is an assistant professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani-Goa.

  • ashok759

    That beautiful photograph of the JNU campus, hundreds of acres of semi arid scrub in the Aravallis, worth peanuts when it was set up, now a king’s ransom, gives rise to a stray thought. ( It is buttressed by what I have seen of the expanse of IIM, Calcutta at Joka. ) Why not remodel the campuses, taking the help of world renowned architects, free up a lot of land, monetise it with enlightenment, not grubby fingers, and put all that money into a firewalled account that is used to fund the setting up of institutions designed from day one, to find place in a ranking of the top 500, slowly, the first 100 ? There will be increasing fiscal stress in the years to come, not all of India’s higher education should be left to politicians who grab government land and set up shoddy institutions that subsist on capitation fees and do not even pay fair salaries to their faculty. We need to make better use of public resources, land being # 1. There was Nehruji’s vision which gave us the IITs and the IIMs. More of that needs to be on display now, for the salience of excellence in education has increased manifold in a globalised world.

  • Rama Krishna

    Excellent insights, but the blurb (under the headline) fails to reflect the theme of the article. Two additional suggestions for reform: (1) Indian public universities, including JNU, should get their budgeted money necessarily on a “matching” basis, that is as a proportion of external funds they’re required to raise. It’s a funding model that has worked well in America, where many state universities get a fourth of their operating budgets from legislative appropriations, the rest coming through grants, endowments and donations raised via due process. This matching-funds model encourages the universities to improve quality of scientific curriculum, respond to industry needs, invest in useful research, and cultivate alumni, while the public funds can be better focused to serve the liberal arts, humanities, and social sciences. (2) Indian public universities, including JNU, must be urgently protected from the insidious hegemony of Marx-apologetic critical methods that will destroy local society. The Marxist methods tend to obsess with class distinction, apologize for reactive violence, reinforce regressive theology (in the name of secularism), and perpetuate power hierarchies, while simultaneously dissing local cultures and their inherent classical-liberal values. Indian taxpayer funds should be used to strengthen critical scholarship by allowing students to benefit also from Indian methods grounded in Indian philosophy and Indian pedagogy.

    • sicunder kahn

      It’s not working well in america… the students are working all kinds of jobs to pay their colledge fees and over all quality of education in these private colleges of america is as deplorable as in india if not worse. It’s the main election issue for americans ….they have finally achieved free universal health care though very late, and now they want free education for the talented students. For profit model if implemented in indian publicly universities will be a step backwards. Governments don’t need to be paid for providing education to its citizens they take taxes afterall. Parents don’t need to be paid for taking care of their infants it’s their duty, if they dont raise an obnoxious selfish person then they will get the returns in old age. And if the alumni of premier government institutes like which i come from, if their students are lining up for american greencard as soon as they get their degree from publicly funded institutes then the right question to be raised is this –

      Why are these premier institutes are raising selfish narrow minded asocial slaves for the white world even after 60 decades of independence.

      Questioning the public funding of the government institutes shouldn’t be a matter of debate in a civilized country like india. We had Nalanda and Taxila long before Manipal.

      Private colleges are ofcourse a bussiness and it’s a free market and they are welcome. But government institutes can never be asked to make profit.

  • sicunder kahn

    Mr. Pushkar, yours is a valid argument but your protest is rather meek and i can see why or assume to do so and if my assumptions are correct you can come out bolder than you have. I am sure you know the crux of the problem in indian higher education system but you failed to call a spade a spade. Or in this case the 2 spades –
    1.The real problem is utter lack of social diversity in our government institutes specially in professional colleges of science stream.
    2.Unregulated admission process of management qouta in private colleges.

    I assume because BITS is a private institute so you are hesitating in pointing out the privatization issue.
    But sir, ChristianMedicalCollege vellore and BITS pilani and VMMC delhi are private institutes we are proud of with a strictly defined admission criteria and and commitment to excellence. But not every private school and college is not CMC and BITS. And rampant privatisation has led to mushrooming of extremely exploitative higher education mafia which give rise to even skewered demographics when it cones to gender and caste in student population. DALITS and tribals most of them can’t afford and nor are welcome in these institutes despite qoutas because of high costs and the social background of communities that own the institutes and on the other hand nobody is willing to spend 50 lakh on a girl child to buy her a mbbs degree even the rich parents, specially if they have to pay the dowry and equally expensive wedding expenses. We in south asia have a peculiar gender caste dynamics which combined with unregulated wild wild west privatization is extremely exploitative and anti people. Government institutes are not immune to caste gender biases but atleast because of public funded nature of these institutes dalits, tribals, women, minorities atleast get to enter their gates, it’s a different thing if they come out alive or not.

    And believe it or not the institute of national importance i come from has non existent gender, caste, racial problems amongst students and between students and professors. Indoeuropeans, dravids, bengals, mongoloids of different languages and castes live and study together with peace justice and equality. Our teachers are also from different ethnic backgrounds and are sensitive to students.